War With Iraq: WWLD?

The nation's foremost religion historian asks: What would Martin Luther have to say about war with Iraq?

BY: Martin E. Marty

 
Reprinted with permission of Sightings.

Religious, theological, and spiritual justifications for starting or opposing an invasion of Iraq dominate current coverage. Most Europeans are bemused and many Americans are non-plussed by the dominance of evangelical pro-war talk. Reporting on the questioning by just-war-minded Catholics, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and peace churches is slight.

What if Christian Americans chose to complexify the debates by listening to some other witnesses? The following case study results from my re-readings of Martin Luther for a forthcoming biography of him. Many of his views on politics warrant criticism and rejection. But theologically, what has he to say?

Luther's enemies proverbially said of Muslims that "the Turks are Luther's luck." For two decades Catholic imperial and princely forces dared not move against the excommunicated reformer for fear of civil war. With the Turks threatening Vienna, they also could not risk foot-dragging by pro-Luther princes if they had to fight Muslim armies.

Luther, anything but pacifist, is well-known for counseling super-obedience by Christians to secular civil authority. But in this instance, when papal and other western European authorities asked him to support a new "crusade" against the evil Muslim, he was emphatic and repetitious: Never. Never. Never. Defensive war, he conceded, may be a necessity. Luther also taught that for a military person to kill in a war that he thought unjust and immoral was akin to murder.

His most consistent point: there dared never be any religious, theological, or spiritual claim that "our side" had a monopoly on virtue. Instead, Luther's whole theme was a call to prayer and repentance by "our side." The Muslims, he sometimes said, though they were evil, might be more pious than most Christians. Historian Mark Edwards writes that Luther saw the Turks as a "scourge of God," an apocalyptic sign that the world was coming to an end.

What was repentance to include? The twentieth century's major biographer of Luther, Martin Brecht, summarizes: Luther preached that the true "Turks," the real enemies, were all on "our" side. He specified them, "greed, usury, arrogance, arbitrary morality, tyranny of those in high places, unfaithfulness, evil." Arrogance disturbed him most.

Fortunately for the forthcoming war effort, no one will be consulting Martin Luther. However, efforts like his to keep the prosecution of war secular and to resist crusading still find voices, sometimes among overlooked evangelicals.

For Luther, theological, religious, and spiritual claims for one's own side were the enemies at home, the ones that needed to be defeated.

References: Often we point to web sites and e-mail addresses for readers who wish to follow up. Unfortunately, Martin Luther was not connected to the Internet in 1526 when he wrote "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved." Our citation is to p. 470 in Selected Writings of Martin Luther, volume 3 (Fortress): "A . . . question: 'Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.' I reply: 'If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, . . . and you should neither fight nor serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God.' 'Oh, no,' you say, 'my lord would force me to do it . . . Besides, I would be despised and put to shame as a coward, even worse, as a man who did not keep his word and deserted his lord in need." I answer: You must take that risk and, with God's help, let whatever happens, happen. . . "

On the Muslims and apocalypse, see Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Luther's Last Battles (Cornell), 97-114; see also Martin Brecht, Martin Luther (Fortress), index references to "Turks" in vol. 3, p. 459 and "war," ibid., 508.

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